Bride Britney boosts same-sex marriages

January 12, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Who would have believed that Britney Spears would end up striking a blow for gay marriage? I'm not talking about the pop star's fleeting moments with Madonna. I'm talking about her fleeting hours with Jason Allen Alexander.

The newly wed and unwed Britney began her career as a professional virgin telling little-girl fans they could be sexy without having sex before marriage. Then year by year, hit by hit, she performed a professional striptease act, from plaid skirt to Esquire buff, from Justin Timberlake to Jason Alexander.

Early one Vegas morn, after watching that romantic classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, these hometown pals looked at each other and, according to Jason, said, "Let's do something wild, crazy. Let's go get married, just for the hell of it."

Off they went to the Little White Wedding Chapel with Britney in her baseball cap and jeans. After 55 hours, the "I dos" became "I don'ts," the vows were annulled and assorted folks chimed in with the same thought: Hey, a man and woman can get married on a lark, but when a committed gay couple want to make it legal, they're accused of wrecking the institution?

E. J. Graff, author of What Is Marriage For? put it a bit more gently, "God bless 'em, they're allowed to be foolish while lesbian and gay couples who are committed aren't taken seriously."

I don't think we should judge straight marriage by the lowest common denominator of a Vegas quickie. But in the wake of the gay marriage decision in Massachusetts, President Bush spoke for the opposition, declaring that "marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman."

But Britney's little leap is a reminder that a marriage doesn't have to be sacred to be legal. The law is no holier than a $40 trip at the Tunnel of Vows Drive-Through in the Little White Wedding Chapel.

Church and state marriage, gay and straight marriage?

For the first thousand years of Christianity, the church didn't want anything to do with marriage, which was about property, not spirituality. In the Middle Ages, clerics and lords fought for control of marriage. The lords, kind of like Britney's mom, Lynne, didn't want their kids to be able to marry without parental permission.

The most famous wrangle over the ins and outs of marriage came when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church so he could break away from Catherine and marry Anne. Not to mention Jane. Or the next Anne, or Katherine, or another Catherine.

Fast forward to America. For most of our history, as Nancy Cott, author of Public Vows, says, "all the authority to make or break marriage and to decide who can officiate has been secular." Because most marriages took place in church, clergy were allowed to celebrate them. But so were many others, from 18th century ship captains to 21st century "ministers" in an Elvis pink Cadillac driving down Las Vegas Boulevard.

Religions have varied in what they define as a sacred marriage. For Mormons, it long included polygamy; for Catholics, it excludes divorce.

As for the secular marriage, the state once declared "common-law marriages" for men and women who just lived together for a long time. Now laws range from covenant marriages in Britney's own Louisiana to civil unions in Vermont. In most places, it's still a lot easier to get into a marriage than get out of it. No one talks about sacred divorce.

There are now churches and synagogues that will join same-sex couples in holy matrimony; there are also churches and synagogues that will damn them.

Maybe the whole matter of same-sex marriage would be less contentious if we didn't conflate the sacred and the secular. If we remembered that the Massachusetts Supreme Court was talking about civil marriage. If we remembered that no court can force a church to marry gay couples.

The state's interest in marriage is based largely on the public interest in - hold your breath here - stable relationships. Stable?

Britney and Jason were granted an annulment in 55 hours on the grounds that they lacked "understanding of each other's actions in entering upon this marriage." Compare them with gay couples who "understand" each other and commitment but are kept legally single.

Now repeat the question family law professor Martha Minow asks: "Is this the moment to stand back and ask not who should get married but how to get married?" Should we be more worried about thoughtless, instant, throwaway marriages than same-sex marriages?

As for the idea that same-sex marriage somehow disparages heterosexual marriage, we can put that to rest. Who needs gay couples when you have Britney and Jason?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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